Peter Collins’ 1959 book Concrete (republished in 2004) is well-known for its enthusiastic endorsement of August Perret’s pseudo-classical language as a default for the material—a judgment that seems to fade in and out as tastes change. But it should really be known as the best history of early European concrete. The first few chapters, before Perret, remain some of the best researched, most complete writings on a material that was barely accepted in construction until after 1900.
Among the unsung heroes that Collins brought to light was Francois Coignet, a builder whose own house in St. Denis was constructed in 1853 out of a combination of rammed earth (pìse), lime cement, and rubble brick and stone. Its floors were supported by timber and iron beams—not reinforced. In other words, concrete took the place of brick arches in traditional masonry construction, which rested on iron beams, but the iron itself wasn’t integrated into the concrete floors themselves. Collins likens the iron in particular to the tension bars that often formed the base of arcades, a far different mechanism than concrete actually embedded in, and thus monolithic with, concrete itself. Coignet patented his version of concrete in 1855, in time for the Universal Exhibition in Paris where he was awarded a bronze medal.
Coigent’s house, somewhat unbelievably given the crude nature of pìse, is still standing between the Quai de Saint-Ouen and Rue Charles-Michels, about a 20 minute walk south of the St. Denis RER station. Collins reported that it had been carved into tenements at the time of his writing, but it’s now long abandoned and in pretty grave condition. As a result you can see the matrix of the pìse where the outer layers have sloughed off, proving that it is in fact rubble held together with pretty rough lime cement.
1855 is incredibly early for such a large concrete building. Edison’s Ward House in New York wasn’t built for another twenty years, and Ransome’s work in California wouldn’t occur until the 1880s. Coignet wasn’t working in concrete exactly—but from looking at the house it’s obviously not just rammed earth, either. This is another one of those arguments where you can call anything a “first” depending on how you define it, but what’s really interesting about this house is that it’s proto-Perret in its molding of concrete into a classical language.
Which Coignet seems to have been very flexible about. In 1862 he was the contractor for the outer walls of this parish church in Le Vésinet, a suburb about 20 minutes west of Paris. It’s in a recognizably pastoral Victorian gothic, not far from Viollet-le-Duc’s parish church in St. Denis or really any number of churches of the same era. What’s surprising is that the exterior is all concrete—which you can see when you get close and see that the ‘joints’ between ‘stones’ are actually stylused into the concrete itself. Coignet had become adept at concrete ornament; the windows in particular show a pretty tight sense of detailing, not especially easy to achieve in molded concrete.
Even more surprising? The interior is entirely of cast and wrought iron. The first thing to come to mind is—of course—Henri Labrouste’s Ste. Genevieve Library, which wrapped a stone shell around a similarly proportioned set of iron vaults and arches. But there was apparently no such tectonic intent here. Collins wrote that Boileau, the architect who won the competition, was dead-set against concrete being used as the exterior, and when Coignet won the bid he simply refused to cooperate. The interior is thus, literally, a church within a church; the iron is entirely self-supporting and barely touches the exterior walls. How true is the story? Hard to say, but whatever the cause this is an interesting and rare example of a delineated set of material hierarchies actually built along the lines that Viollet-le-Duc had proposed in the Entretiens; his assembly hall shows a more elaborate program of detailing and distinguishing ornament, but it’s not all that different in terms of spatial effect.
Coignet was also an early example of the relationship between concrete and entrepreneurship, building this apartment block on the rue Miromesnil near Park Monceau as a speculative venture. Concrete would have a long history in Paris of being associated with builders who were also developers, and who kept trade secrets and patented their methods, leading up to Hennebique’s world-beating system in 1892.
Coignet practiced on a far smaller scale than Hennebique, but these were important steps on the road to a fully articulated building system of concrete strengthened with iron. As Collins would put it:
“Coignet can justly be regarded as the man who first brought mass concrete construction to the knowledge of the modern world, and who in his lifetime exploited it to its utmost capacity. His methods were far more scientific than those practiced elsewhere in his day, and although he never undertook laboratory experiments, or attempted to ascertain theoretically the economic dimensions of the material required, he spared no pains in making practical tests.”